Mark Hagerott: 'We're all in this together'

Mark Hagerott is crisscrossing the state on a listening tour, hoping to glean as much knowledge as possible from lawmakers and other leaders as he assumes his new role as chancellor of the North Dakota University System.

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott meets with the Grand Forks Herald editorial board this week. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Mark Hagerott is crisscrossing the state on a listening tour, hoping to glean as much knowledge as possible from lawmakers and other leaders as he assumes his new role as chancellor of the North Dakota University System.

What he's hearing most is concern about local needs, but he says he is intentionally steering the conversation to help him understand how the system can better benefit the state as a whole.

"I'm hearing lots of really good feedback about our system, about how it's servicing the needs of the community," Hagerott said, showing a legal pad with more than 20 pages of notes.

"I'd say that each place I've gone, it's oriented toward what the local needs are. I've tried to structure the conversation into basically three tiers: How better can my office and the NDUS communicate with legislators? How are we doing in your community? And, as leaders of the state, how can we better serve the state?"

Hagerott officially stepped into the role of chancellor on July 1. He is a retired Navy captain, former deputy director and professor at the Naval Academy's Center for Cyber Security Studies, a Rhodes scholar and a White House fellow.


Earlier this week, he visited for an hour with the Herald's editorial board, telling the board members that he is impressed with UND and Grand Forks, and also that he's hoping to be a collaborator and innovator as he better adapts to his new job.

Following are Hagerott's edited and abbreviated answers to a series of questions posed by editorial board members:

Q. You say you're on a listening tour and hearing from leaders. What are you hearing?

It's been positive feedback, and some advice on getting engaged early on in legislative issues and communication. More information is better than less.

And then more specific issues about their communities and what they need as far as their workforce. There are quite a variety of needs. Some places are a little more stable here in the east as opposed to the Oil Patch.

I am impressed that the legislators are not only, of course, lawmakers and experts in process, but they know what's going on in their communities. I can see why they've been elected. They have the pulse points of what's happening in detail.

A lot of them have been around, and so they have perspective and can say, "we've gone through this before, and we'll get through this again. But a certain issue may be new."

That's a benefit of having people with longevity.


One observation was interesting. I went to a legislative conference, and a legislator made the observation that they hope more midcareer people will run for office.

We have some college grads coming right out (and running for office), and then you have lots of older people. We're missing that midcareer group because they are trying to start families and keep businesses going. They just can't take months of their time. So then that connection between the generations starts to be lessened.

We have some legislators who are really in tune with the education programs now, and then some legislators who are a couple of generations removed from that challenge.

Perhaps that's a communication challenge. I hadn't thought about that before.

Q. What can you do about it?

I think explaining our programs. For example, a question came up about technologies and new initiatives. They all know about unmanned systems and computer security and whatnot. You have the younger people who certainly get it ... but they typically aren't running companies. But some midcareer person might say, "my whole company is online, and this is a big issue."

If you're retired, this might not be a big issue.

It's an example of where there is maybe a gap in (the Legislature) that could be filled by people who are building businesses right now.


Q. The North Dakota University System has had a few cyber security incidents in years past. Will that be a focus for you, given your background?

I am doing three things: No. 1, keep trains running on time. Meaning, students show up and need to be brought through the process of admissions, orientation, core courses, help them pick their major-key things to reduce loss from the first year.

No. 2 is the adaptive function. For instance, incoming classes are bigger or less than we thought, or someone retires. You have to adapt to local conditions.

Then you have the third category, in which Grand Forks has been leading the nation. If you just did 1 and 2-kept trains running on time or adapted to disruptions-you would never create an unmanned systems program. It took people with imagination, business leaders and government leaders to come together to create something entirely new that people wouldn't even know what you were talking about 10 years ago.

So, I want to be able to be sure we meet the needs of the system running day to day. Then, No. 2 would be things, for example, like the search for the new UND president. That's adapting. But also we need to create whole new programs, and cyber security could fall into that category, and your university here has been leaning forward on that quite a bit as well.

Q. You spoke about how individual colleges and towns have things they need, but you also are asking people to think about what's best for the state as a whole. Do you have a method to do that? How do you address if two schools have the same issues or requests?

In a complex system, we have to agree on what the factors are. Is there a budget deficit or is there not? What is the cost? What is the administrative vs. faculty ratio?

Locally, they are very versed on their local needs, and some are very divergent. ... For instance, Williston is dealing with the oil boom and massive turnover. Williston is fairly remote, so just the idea of recruiting people (is a challenge).


My method is to get out and listen and ask explicitly: What else should we be thinking about as a state or as a state leader?

Another method is ... that it is great to have it off-site with the state board and vice chancellors. But also have another meeting with the stakeholders, legislators, university presidents and business leaders to think strategically about our state.

One of the questions might be, how can we better help Dickinson and Williston? How can the big universities help them?

I would hope people would see that as social capital, and that we're all in this together. It's in our best interest to all work within this system.

Q. There are some contentious issues at UND. Does that add difficulty to the search for a new president?

(With the Internet), I think people could create issues that would then reflect or cause complications for the search process. You're trying to go out across the country and attract top-level talent to a top-level university and they read stuff (that seems) like fratricide, and think, "Wow, do I want to go into that?'

And add to that our approach to open records, which I like. ... Being in the Navy, I have had background investigations since I was 18, but some people aren't used to that kind of scrutiny. I think more states will like what we do here because of the level of corruption around the country, but people are still getting used to that.

So, you try to attract top-level talent to a state where everything is out in the open, and you see people are being uncivil to one another. I think it could complicate things. ... But it would be unfortunate if we turn candidates away by just being uncivil to one another.


... I think you would want to highlight how professional and balanced it is in this process.

This will probably be the first search with UND being this high of a profile. I know when I met some of our representatives on Capitol Hill, they said North Dakota's brand has never been higher in interest in how we're doing things-from being the only state with a state bank and one of the few states that's funding higher ed higher, to unmanned systems, and even to our approach to transparency.

Q. Is it important to get the nickname issue out of the way before bringing in the next UND president?

I think it just crowds out somebody's time, right? You have all these issues we're talking about: attrition, retention, adapting to new programs. As long as the process is taken into account ... it would seem to be beneficial to get on with the other issues.

Q. What is your understanding of how the hiring process will unfold and what your role will be? Will there be a search committee and then you have the final say, or do you make a recommendation to the state board?

The state board will make the final decision. There is no mystery to the processes. We have sent out requests for nominations on who will be on the committee, and we have sent out requests for search firms.

I can have a little more input on the timeline. I am inclined to make it a little longer process because it will take a little time. It's a little out of cycle (for a president) to retire on the 14th of January.

Q. Are you the presidents' boss? Can you hire and fire? What is your understanding of the relationship with the presidents?


The board in the end is the one that hires presidents, but I am the one who works with them day to day. I am the one who writes their evaluations. The board can always decide to override my recommendations, but they are busy people, and I am not someone who is building an empire.

I feel very comfortable with the relationship the way it is, in every way. I think it's a great team of people doing great stuff-adapting to things ... quietly confident and positive about what they're doing, and knowing there will be differences and things do change.

In many ways, technology is upending much of the world right now, so there will be adjustments. That's just natural. If you had no adjustments, no changes, no people were getting more money and some getting less, that would be weird, right?

Q. Your background is in the Navy, where the chain of command is very strict and absolute. We gather that it's a little different in higher education.

I left the line 11 years ago and, interestingly, at (the Naval Academy in) Annapolis, the vast majority are civilian professors. Military staff come and go. ... I'm quite comfortable with faculty senates and all of these things.

Q. We assume your management style is something people will wonder about.

Look at old management books, such as "In Search of Excellence," by Tom Peters. It talks about loose-tight principles.

In companies, you want to say, "Hey, you have this division, so run this thing."

(Someone might answer) "Whoa. OK, that's great. But you're leaving this uncovered. We still need someone to be making the light switch."

The key is to keep innovating, but you still need to include the light switch production. Light switches haven't really changed, right? It's not very interesting, but if you don't make those, nothing's going to happen.

So one place I'll have more authority than not is with admission standards. For instance, someone who takes a two-year program at Bismarck State wants to transfer to UND.

My response might be, "OK, UND, tell us why they can't come in."

Then, I can talk to the president at Bismarck and say, "here are the concerns. This program of yours is not up to standards." So, they'll tweak that.

But when you're talking innovation, someone may suggest something new that we need to do at the medical school. I can become an advocate for that.

And collaborating is really good, and that's something I could really promote.

We could approach a research project and say, "We have three universities working together, incentivized by the central NDUS system and working with the commerce department."

Instead of (separate universities saying), "no, come talk to us."

So these are areas where we can innovate and collaborate. Think of the strength of that: Someone coming to us and saying they want to start a new project, and we can say three or four universities will all work together supporting this effort.

Those are just some general thoughts. But I really do want to get out and hear what's going on.

Opinion by Korrie Wenzel
Korrie Wenzel has been publisher of the Grand Forks Herald and Prairie Business Magazine since 2014.

Over time, he has been a board member of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., Junior Achievement, the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, United Way, Empire Arts Center, Cornerstones Career Learning Center and Crimestoppers.

As publisher, Wenzel oversees news, advertising and business operations at the Herald, as well as the newspaper's opinion content.

In the past, Wenzel was sports editor for 14 years at The Daily Republic of Mitchell, S.D., before becoming editor and, eventually, publisher.

Wenzel can be reached at 701-780-1103.
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